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Sept. 25, 2003, 1:02PM
Opponents organize against Metro's light-rail referendum

By LUCAS WALL
Copyright 2003 Houston Chronicle

The campaign over Metro's Nov. 4 transit-expansion referendum heated up this morning with the announcement of a well-funded opposition effort.

The group, Texans for True Mobility, is the first opposition group to emerge with a paid staff and plans to launch advertising countering the Metropolitan Transit Authority's promotion of light rail. A 73-mile rail system by 2025, with a $640 million bond issue to accelerate construction of the next 22 miles, is the centerpiece of the "Metro Solutions" transit plan voters will decide on in November.

Developer Michael Stevens and John Butler, a member of Metro's original board of directors, are chairing the campaign. They held a news conference at the Hyatt Regency Houston, directly across from Metro's Louisiana Street headquarters, to launch their pitch that the Metro Solutions plan "costs too much, does too little." Speakers attacked the light rail portion of the proposal, arguing it will not ease the region's mobility woes and will carry only a fraction of future travelers.

"Our long term objectives are cost-effective congestion reduction," Stevens said. "We are not against all rail but we oppose the Metro Solutions plan because of the rail component, which will not reduce congestion."

The group's news conference this morning follows mayoral candidate Orlando Sanchez's announcement Wednesday that he opposes the Metro plan. The other two major Houston mayoral candidates, Sylvester Turner and Bill White, have endorsed the referendum.

Texans for True Mobility's advisory committee is made up of numerous Republicans including U.S. Rep. John Culberson of Houston, four state senators, nine state representatives, Harris County Tax Assessor-Collector Paul Bettencourt, District Clerk Charles Bacarisse, and Harris County Republican Party Chairman Jared Woodfil. Butler's wife, Penny, is Sanchez's campaign treasurer and also serves on the advisory committee.

There is a partisan difference in how voters view Metro's transit plan, a recent Houston Chronicle/KHOU-Channel 11 poll found, with Republicans the most skeptical, but still slightly in favor. The survey found 56 percent of Democrats questioned support Metro's referendum while 12 percent oppose it. Republicans, on the other hand, had only 37 percent support for transit expansion with 33 percent opposed. Among independents, 48 percent said they supported Metro's proposition while 16 percent were opposed. Roughly one-third of voters in each category were undecided.

Rail opponents point out this poll was conducted before today's launch of their campaign against the referendum and they expect the numbers will shift when anti-Metro advertisements start airing and voters better understand the facts.

"This plan is way too costly," said John Butler. "It doesn't have any effect on reducing congestion in the region. It's been sold out of context."

Stevens said the group will advocate for other transportation solutions that will cut congestion in half by 2025, the goal of the "100 percent plan" being drafted by the Houston-Galveston Area Council. More highways are needed to serve the vast majority of commuters and freight who move around by automobile and truck, Stevens said, and other initiatives such as grade separations and additional commuter bus service should also be considered in lieu of rail.

"We will support plans that will reduce congestion, that will be cost effective," he said. "Metro's plan only addresses the downtown area. It's not for suburb-to-suburb trips -- the places people live to the places people work."

Texans for True Mobility said Houston must learn from its rival city to the north, Dallas, which built light rail in 1996 but carries less passengers on mass transit than Metro does today with its bus system. Dallas Area Rapid Transit is now running short on money, rail opponents, and has requested federal assistance.

Voters must reject this referendum, the group said, so Metro can come back next year with a better plan that will use its sales-tax revenues for projects that will help relief traffic problems. Stevens said rail can be part of those plans only if it's proven a line will take a significant number of cars off the highways and reduce travel time.

Citizens for Public Transportation, the political action committee campaigning for passage of Metro Solutions, plans an afternoon news conference to respond to the arguments the opponents made this morning.